Monday, 19 December 2016

Terrible TV Review: Digging for Britain, series 5

...and as soon as I declare my hiatus, out comes an archaeology program on the TV that has me tearing my hair out so much that I want to dissect it in a blog post. So that hiatus will have to wait until after you've read this post! Digging for Britain has been going since 2011, and normally hosted by Professor Alice Roberts, sometimes with a co-presenter. They've moved away from site visits by the presenter to getting each dig team to film their own digs to get as many as they can inside an hour for each episode, splitting the country into North, Central and South (more on this later). I was actually in the first series at Binchester with my University course mates back in 2011! That bias aside, this first episode of the latest series had me pulling out my hair and stopping inches away from the remote as a good bit of archaeology was done. Why? Although  all the archaeological sites unto themselves have some amazing finds that are pretty much all unique in their own right, and could happily be expanded upon, sometimes the analysis and the interpretation (or lack of explanation in the interpretation) had me fuming. Or maybe I just misunderstood what they were saying...

One of the issues they had is, as hinted above, is that they are trying to squeeze as many sites into the show as possible. With 10 sites, that's about 5 minutes realistically for each site. There were 6 in this episode, BUT there were a lot of segments involving talking about collections in the National Museums Scotland, which reduced the overall amount of time spent on site. As a comparison, Time Team got one site for a whole hour to explain it in depth, usually over 3 days. Some of these sites had fantastic stratigraphy but I imagine they had to miss out a lot of it because they normally had 3 weeks of filming, which then had to be heavily edited to show the "juicy bits". don't get me wrong, these "juicy bits" are what attract the attention and lead to further investigations, but as an archaeologist, I do wonder how much of the wider picture had to be left out to fit all these sites in, so maybe more programs to fit in the same sites, so they get more time to talk about their sites and some of the other things they've found next time please. Burnswark could have done with more time (or possibly a GIS specialist); two Roman era camps (which could have dated to any period in the Roman era and not necessarily an aggressive military application e.g. a siege) surrounding a hillfort in southern Scotland (presumed early 1st century). They dug the camps (not the forts, interestingly) and found huge quantities of worked stone for slings. They assumed that the Romans made the stones without telling us the provenance of the stones, and simply stated that they must have been fired at the local besieged population in the fort. Why couldn't it be the locals also firing back? I'm aware that the evidence is limited for slings in Iron Age/ Romano-British Britain but it just seems too much like something else is at work here. That being said, they did find a nice stockpiles of sling shot, which probably indicates a reasonably long period of activity for the siege. That being said, the hillfort wasn't investigated at all, and there was no mention of excavating it in the past, or plans to do so in the future, although the area had been fieldwalked. The GIS wasn't used well here at all... there was no way of determining the direction of the shot without some serious assumptions (admittedly quite hard to do), and the map itself didn't differentiate between those shots that appeared to have been fired and those that had been left untouched (either in the stockpiles or otherwise). A bit of use wear analysis fed into the GIS could have gone a long way into making this a much more informed conclusion. Even then, the sheer quantity of sling shot in the area could have been a series of training rounds, as originally the camps were thought to be training bases. Instead, I nearly turned off the TV at this point as this one sites' very selective approach to the wider context of the area was unbearable!! Moral of the story here- assumptions make asses out of you and me. At least the camerawork was reasonable in showing off the sites they did dig, and the experimental archaeology was quite fun to watch on a slow motion camera while informing us that slings are dangerous in the right hands.

Other sites were not so reliant on a quick and dirty approach to interpretation, but probably still have a number of juicy finds that are being missed out for time constraints, as is normally the case with excavations. The hospital at Thornton Abbey could have had a quick map to illustrate the hospital layout on site, because the preservation of the walls and the skeletons are fantastic, but on a video you don't capture the scale of the building, or the position of the skeletons within the hospital. Perhaps even a 3D model? Even a relatively small site, like Loch Arnish in the Isle of Lewis, has only 3 minutes of footage dedicated to it. They spent a good 6-7 hours exploring the underwater landscape and they have probably barely scratched the surface of these island houses (crannogs). What annoyed me on these prehistoric sites is that they didn't even tell us how they could tell it was Neolithic pottery! Even just saying slipped ware (it's not, but as an archaeologist I can say that it is from its appearance) would give the general public a better understanding of these crannogs, which are basically middens (rubbish tips) that was deliberately made into a habitable piece of land. Such sites (including Tells), involving reusing materials to build these "monuments", are not as rare as you think in ancient civilisations, but most are found on land in Europe and the Middle East. Some more discussion on why they thought they built crannogs would have been good, although they did have a good discussion with Professor Alison Sheridan on trade and travel in the Neolithic. Otherwise, a nice showcase of Britain's small but growing underwater archaeology sector.

Lindisfarne, another coastal site, is given a going over by Durham University and Digventures, this time focusing on the famous monastery.  Not the one you can see but the earlier one it replaced. That much is nicely summarised. I won't focus on my worries of Digventures and Durham University cherry-picking Lindisfarne but as if to epitomise my previous argument, a monastery is a massive construction, likely to have a large network economically, socially and politically. Dr David Petts has been on this program before and his experience in summarising the site is evident. Again though, much like Thornton Abbey, I suspect only certain finds were not put on TV to form a particular story, just for time constraints. At least they managed to squeeze in the context of Lindisfarne into the wider history of Britain, with the Viking raids and continuity of Lindisfarne post-793AD.

It is difficult to cover the sheer variety of archaeology in northern Britain, but this program does try, but it is a Sisyphean task. That said, the Hunteston Brooch they describe is a great example of early christian art in British metalwork. Any site on Orkney is going to be unique, to both Britain and itself, as there is simply so much that remains standing. The South Ronaldsay Broch is hardly known outside of Orkney, so it is nice to see it, like Burnswark, getting some much needed attention. Especially as it also demonstrates the reuse of the site from a Broch into a sacred site (with only the bones as supporting evidence). But in discussing the emphasis on the transformation of the site (which apparently takes 17 days!) they have missed out talking about the Broch itself in any great detail. Again, the discovery of bones of various animals makes you wonder what else they found. Bone doesn't survive well on many sites so if bone is being found, what else could have been there? Especially to support such a tentative theory as a sacred site? Why not just a midden with comparatively few animals?

Little Carlton, the last site in this selection, focuses on the recent Saxon discoveries made by metal detectors, leading to a large scale excavation of the area. Here, they finally get it right, showing off the context of the site trenches (albeit by accident), some unique finds and more discussion on the context of the archaeology, in particular the skeletons. It should be said that east to west is a traditional christian practice in burial.The last skeleton they focus on is unusual and merits attention. It also shows us finally why Professor Alice Roberts is an academic, pointing out the knee joint in its incorrect position and this observation gives us a clue into who the skeleton might be. Again though, this is tentative, and relies on the skeleton being a christian to support the hypothesis. Little Carlton is rightly summed up as hard to decipher.

My final thoughts: The definition of north in this episode covers half of the country, from Orkney all the way to Lincolnshire! Even on the northern tip of the East Midlands, that still means that there is a huge amount of land that is covered in this program. This means that either there aren't enough sites to cover the program, which on the face of it is worrying, because it would imply that there is less emphasis on sites in the north. However a more realistic explanation is that there are simply less people. However, this rough guide encompasses 2 countries which have 2 slightly different agendas to archaeology, which weren't focused on in the program. the other problem appears to be that if there is a north, where are the boundaries for the other cardinal points? The previous episode focuses on the West of Britain, but doesn't include the West of Scotland. This also means that the East of Britain won't include a large amount of the east coast of Britain. However, this is covered by the North but also by another recent program from Channel 4 - Britain at Low Tide, which focused on coastal regions with archaeology at risk from the sea. These distinctions are rough guides but could have been better aligned as they don't seem to match current thinking on what the "North" is, in historical or contemporary terms. They could have titled the episode "North and Midlands" and it may have felt a bit more appropriate, but you would still be missing large swathes of Midland area, which are included in the next episode and the last episode. Interestingly, the south is amalgamated into the east and west regions; perhaps this is a deliberate attempt to shake up perceptions of what is east, west and north in Britain? They don't reflect on why they did this but its a nice idea.

Perhaps a little harsh saying it merits "Terrible TV" but sections could be improved as outlined above, particularly with the interpretations, which haven't either been explained fully or just didn't get any decent theoretical treatment, or even simply not stating how the archaeologist knows that it is Neolithic pottery!!. As much as I want to see as many sites as possible in a program, because at the end of the day they are all quite interesting and merit further work, this program demonstrates the difficulties in this program's approach, rather than an in-depth "Time-Team" style approach which has one site dug up for an hour on TV (or maybe longer) and gives you an impressively detailed perspective of a very small area. Other shows seem to fit somewhere between the two on the spectrum.

With that min-rant over now I can enjoy my hiatus... pop over to for more information on my new joint project!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Christmas hiatus

I am taking time off from this blog for the foreseeable future, so I can focus on one of my childhood passions, Robot Wars. I will be making blog posts for team ARC as the team's driver. Follow my progress at With that, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!